It’s Sunday afternoon, and the sun is slowly coming out on New York City’s Orchard Street. Patches of the street are covered in soapy water and last night’s party detritus — cups, cigarettes, and ripped wristbands dot the sidewalks. Dogs pull their owners down the street, last night’s revelers clutch coffees and sandwiches like lifelines, and a few marathoners head home, wrapped in foil blankets. In fact, there are people everywhere — everywhere except 7th Street Burger, that is, where inside, Billy McFarland is sweating behind a grill, dishing out $5 grilled cheese sandwiches. The problem is, like most things McFarland offers these days, no one is really that interested.
It’s been almost six years since McFarland’s faux-luxury Fyre Fest broke the internet. When he announced it in 2016, McFarland marketed it as a luxury music festival on a private island with performances from Blink-182, Migos, Major Lazer, and Lil Yachty. He promoted the fest with gorgeous videos of models like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner frolicking in the sand. Instead, the festival drew its ticket-goers’ ire — and the internet’s attention — when the opulent experience turned out to be a storm-damaged Bahamian construction site. Thousands of attendees were left drunk, tired, hungry, and stranded with no place to go. The chaos resulted in a federal fraud conviction for McFarland, a six-year prison sentence, and a class-action lawsuit that ended in a settlement.
McFarland was also ordered to pay back $26 million in restitution, which is why, on this sunny Sunday afternoon, he’s hosting a grilled-cheese pop-up at the Lower East Side outcropping of the viral burger chain. (The smash burger restaurant has become a viral sensation online, and a staple collab for conventions and festivals.)
While McFarland has said the event is just one of many ways he plans to pay back the people he defrauded, it’s also a part of his latest attempt at a do-over. He’s already trying to plan a second Fyre Fest, banking on the notoriety of the brand, his self-proclaimed marketing skills, and support from across the internet — including a phone call from Elon Musk himself.
“It’s like all about paying people back while still doing something super interesting,” McFarland tells Rolling Stone. He’s traded his long-sleeved T-shirt with the Bahamian flag for one bearing the logo for PYRT, his company that plans to host treasure hunts and music events in the Bahamas. While the venture launched on social media last October, its accounts are now private — and Bahamian officials have made it clear McFarland should never return. But while the founder says he’s only working so hard to make things right, his desire to keep selling himself is failing to pay off.
“I think I’m really willing to do whatever it takes. I don’t think cheese sandwiches are gonna pay back [the millions I owe], but it’s a nice enough Sunday,” McFarland says. So let’s have some fun, do it for a few hours, and see what happens.”
For the two hours I’m camped on the Lower East Side, very little happens. The event has a start time of noon, and McFarland hustles in around 11:50. Around the same time, two girls peer into the building before killing some time in a few shops across the street. They weren’t actually there for McFarland; they had no idea he was there. They just wanted to grab some burgers, and they leave once they learn there are only cheese sandwiches.
Another customer pops in and leaves once he hears there’s no burgers. One guy who grabs a grilled cheese sticks around, though he says he’s a friend of McFarland’s and recently had him on his podcast. Other than that, the store remains empty. Around 1 p.m, another group comes inside, takes photos with McFarland, and leaves without grabbing sandwiches. Even the Pink Pantheress-Ice Spice banger “Boy’s A Liar Pt.2,” which has replayed several times by now, isn’t getting people in the door.
The event is also McFarland’s first public reunion with Fyre Fest collaborator Andy King. While King wasn’t involved in the festival’s initial planning, the Hollywood event producer and party planner joined last-minute in an attempt to save it. What he didn’t count on was becoming one of the faces of how disastrously the whole thing went down. His participation in Netflix’s 2019 documentary Fyre went viral after King recounted his willingness to “take one for the team” in the form of sucking dick for cases of Evian. “I literally drove home, took a shower, I drank some mouthwash,” King says in the doc. “And I got to his office, fully prepared to suck his dick.” But, gloves freshly dirtied from the grill, King seems content to spin his viral notoriety into a new job, especially since he says Fyre Fest made him a pariah in the party planning industry.
“I’ve lost all my anonymity. I rise to the occasion and I hold my head up high, but I can’t go on any street corner anywhere anymore without someone saying ‘You’re Andy King,’” he says. (When he arrived, I watched him successfully walk down several street corners without being stopped.) “So I can serve a cheese sandwich and feel good about it because my life is upside down from Fyre. But I’m not a complainer. And that’s what I try to encourage the world I speak at universities. I talk about failure. People fail every day.”
While King is clear that a cheese sandwich doesn’t mean he’s ready to hand over hard cash to the Fyre Fest originator, he does seem proud that others in the tech community are supporting McFarland.
“Anything that I do moving forward will be very explicit with contracts and payment structures,” King says. “But I feel like I’m a good influence on Billy and I’m proud of what he’s done so far. He is making his financial commitments right now.” King adds that when McFarland announced his intentions to make a second Fyre Fest, he got an encouraging call from none other than Space X’s Musk.
“Some Hollywood people will say any press is good press,” King says. “And when [Billy] makes an announcement about Fyre 2, who’s reaching out but Elon Musk? He’s saying ‘Hey, I’m in if Fyre 3 is in space.’ I’m like, ‘This is what I’m dealing with?’ It’s crazy.” (McFarland declined to confirm the call. “How did you hear this?” he said, grinning. “No comment.”)
With no one to serve sandwiches to at the moment, McFarland is eager to talk about his latest projects, all of which hinge on the tech industry dream of turning failure into an empire. He claims that over 400 people reached out and asked to invest in the “way in the future” Fyre Fest 2. And even while acknowledging that there have been difficulties, McFarland says he’s focused on building a legacy. “At the end of the day, had it worked, I would have taken credit for working. Since it failed, I need to take the credit for the moral and ethical violations,” McFarland says. “I guess the beauty is I have time. So hopefully I have 30 or 40 years to work to make up for this.”
While McFarland’s current problem on this balmy Sunday might be an empty burger joint, it’s emblematic of a larger roadblock the Fyre Fest creator will have to face in his apology tour. Millions of dollars in unpaid debts and restitutions aside, McFarland still seems determined to live by risk. He says he wants to build a tech product a lot of people use that has a big impact. He wants to use his self-described skill at marketing to build a new industry-defining brand. He wants to host a new festival. And he hopefully wants to sell some grilled cheese sandwiches. But at least right now, no one’s buying.